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How big is the central office?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The size of the School District’s central office appears to be pretty much of a moving target in recent budget documents.

A current breakdown from the District’s budget book shows that the District’s "administrative support functions" grew from $117 million in 2008-09 to $198 million in the current year, a surprising one-year increase of 70 percent (see p. 98). The same statement shows the full-time administrative staff growing from 896 positions in December 2007, pre-Ackerman, to 1135 today.

As recently as last November, however, a "budget in brief" document for this very year showed an administrative support budget that was $52 million smaller than the current figure – or only $146 million. According to that version, administrative expenses were up from $128 million in 2008-09 – only a 14 percent increase.

How do we explain these wildly different figures? How did we get from $117 million to $198 million in one year? Is money is being shifted from schools to central office?

The District has not made budget officials available to the Notebook for an interview on the subject.

What makes these comparisons difficult is that definitions change about what is included in "administrative support operations." Recategorization of certain expenditures and staff positions could account for much of the change. It looks like since last November, that happened with the Office of Specialized Services to the tune of $25-30 million dollars that didn’t used to show up as administrative costs.

Even when it’s real, growth in central office is not necessarily a bad thing – bear in mind the recent calls for the District to bolster its charter school oversight or to expand its Re-engagement Center. But it’s something politicians and others are always asking about.

In recent budget documents, the shift in the number of full-time positions in administrative support in fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011 has been less pronounced than the fluctuation in in the spending figures. The number of administrative staff during that period has seemed to vary around 1100, plus or minus 60. But that is still a far cry from 896 before Ackerman’s arrival.

Whatever may be the causes of these fluctuations, page 98 of the budget book certainly merits some explanation before next Wednesday’s School Reform Commission budget vote. When we get some answers, we will share them with you.

For a still dense but more accessible set of figures about the District’s administrative support operations, see pages 27-28 the "budget in brief."